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Routines Aren’t the Enemy

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I recently read Greg Smith’s piece on Bocoup’s blog about how they think about time tracking, including all the fascinating data about how your brain works to solve problems. It interested me a lot, since I’ve been thinking about not just how I track projects, but also how I structure my day as a freelancer.

In addition, I read David Brook’s piece in the New York Times, where he discusses routine and creative people. I am a creature of routine, so reading that so many creative, smart people are too, gives me a bit of hope. It means that maybe, my routines are helping me actually be more productive (or at least that’s what I like to tell myself).

Routine, for me, means making sure I’m taking breaks and putting some structure around my days. Not everyone is the same, but I find that I can go strong and get “in the zone” as it were, for about three to four hours at a go. After that, I need a break. So, now that I’m mostly working remote, and doing that work in my home office, I’ve had to figure out how to make that happen.

This means that I need to work a regular work day, especially since I have a partner doing the same. I get up, eat breakfast, and then hit the office and go hard for an hour or so to organize my day. Once I know what’s ahead of me, I may take a break to shower or run, or I may dive in. But the most important thing for me: I take a lunch. I get away after a morning of work. And if it’s nice, I go outside. Then I hit it again and by 5 or so, I’m done. Maybe my brain isn’t totally spent, but I stop so that I don’t get to the overwhelmed, “what am I doing?!” phase of things.

My favorite part of the day has become when I finish work and move into cooking mode. While cooking, my brain relaxes and I process things. Sometimes solutions pop into my head as well, and I may jot those down to remember for the next morning. As the Bocoup piece discusses, when we allow our brains to process in the background, we’re giving ourselves space to “incubate” what we’ve been working on previously. My routine allows me to make space for incubation.

The other part of the routine that I’m grateful for is that it keeps me working a “normal” amount of hours and allows me to be more productive and efficient in them. By making parts of my day off limits for work, I know I need to get things done in the amount of time I’ve allotted for work. It allows for the space away from the computer, away from my home office, and away from the web. Jeffrey Zeldman discusses this in the lynda.com documentary about his work on the web, how with focused time, he’s getting more done in less time. I find the same to be true and it’s affirming to hear I’m not alone in that.

As a freelancer working on several different things at once and keeping track of details, the routine comforts me. I realize this isn’t for everyone. Most people would say that since I’m freelance I can work whenever I want, so why not take advantage? I do sometimes; a yoga class sneaks in, or I have a slow day where I can step away and do something else in the afternoon—but for the most part, my friends work 9 to 5 jobs and I want to be able to have fun with them when they’re available. In addition, I find the “work whenever you want” idea actually turns into working more because you work all the time.

This isn’t just about me being able to write the best code either. Having a routine can help with writing, getting ready for a presentation, or whatever your work may be. Even if you are going into an office, trying to block off time for focused work and other times for meetings, or breaks, or email, is just as beneficial as me making sure I’m not spending my whole life working.

Plus, if routines made it so some of the great minds could produce great works, I guess it’s not so bad to have a routine when trying to solve code and design problems.

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